Friday, December 18, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: The Witch's Market by Mingmei Yip

I was sent The Witch's Market by Mingmei Yip in exchange for a review, mostly because last December I had agreed to review her previous novel, Secret of a Thousand Beauties. Instead of focusing on 1930s China, The Witch's Market takes place mostly in the modern day Canary Islands, and deals with witches, spells, curses, visions, and even fortune telling.

The Situation: Eileen Chen is a Chinese-American assistant professor living in San Francisco and trying to make tenure. There is a rumor among the student body, and some of the faculty, that Eileen is a witch; a rumor that does not surprise her as she is the one who started it and still encourages it. She focuses on witchcraft in her classes, and is now looking for that big project that will allow her to secure tenure. After receiving some encouragement from a fellow professor, Eileen decides to travel to the Canary Islands to continue her research and eventually turn it into a book to be published. She does not know what she will find exactly, or what kind of adventure this will lead to. But she does have some experience with the subject matter as her grandmother made her living as a shamaness and taught Eileen many things. With only her background and the research she has done, Eileen sets out alone to the Canary Islands.

The Problem: Almost as soon as Eileen arrives, strange happenings and even stranger people begin to show up around her. She first hears about a dog and a man being swallowed up by the earth. Then she meets Cecily, who is supposedly a real witch, but is warned by others not to get involved with her. But it would seem even Cecily is the least of her concerns, as Eileen begins to have dreams of an unfamiliar woman attempting to speak with her. Soon, Eileen finds herself involved in the lives of a wealthy older gentleman, his vengeful and heartbroken ex, a young but handsome furniture maker, and two spirits who have something they desperately want her to know. Filling in the gaps of the information she receives requires Eileen to lean on the knowledge her grandmother taught her. She came to the islands to learn more about witchcraft, and had no idea that she would end up fending off would-be suitors, while investigating a 20 year-old murder.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that deals with witches, witchcraft, folklore, Buddhist teachings, and fortune telling, among many other things. Eileen has traveled to the Canary Islands in order to do research for a book on witchcraft she hopes to publish in order to secure her tenure. She not only ends up learning about witchcraft and meeting real witches, but she also becomes entangled in the lives of a few of the locals, and before she knows it she is investigating a potential murder. Plus, there is Ivan, the on again/off again boyfriend that she left back home in San Francisco. Both Ivan and Alfredo, the older man she meets on the Canary Islands, try to win Eileen's affection with charm and money. But she finds herself more drawn to the young Luis, who has neither. And then there is the bitter but worn out Sabrina who tells of a different side to Alfredo, but she hasn't exactly been the most innocent person either. Eileen enters a small community where everyone has their secrets, but they all seem to want to share them with her and have her in their lives. And she hopes to uncover enough of them that will both bring people together and allow the restless spirits of the dead to have some peace. 

My Verdict: It is an interesting premise: a Chinese-American professor with some knowledge of witchcraft goes to the Canary Islands to research the subject, and ends up using what she knows and what she learns to help the people she meets. I just wish it was executed better. The dialogue is often awkward and much of the plot is either confusing because of the timeline, or unbelievable. It was one of those stories where I found myself saying "of course" quite a bit. Of course Eileen knows Spanish. Of course a rich older man wants her. Of course another rich older man also wants her. Of course a young furniture maker also wants her. Of course she gets to say in other people's houses for a seemingly indefinite amount of time. Of course people just open up to her and tell her everything. You get the idea. On the other hand, what I did enjoy are the characters and the settings. Also, when Yip describes the travel to and from certain locations, I could only be reminded of some of my own trips and how sometimes just getting to a location was enough to drain your energy before you can do what you set out to do. 

Favorite Moment: When Eileen is able to explore Alfredo's castle and its many rooms.

Favorite Character: This is hard. They were all at least a little irritating to me at one point or another. So I think I'll just walk away from this section, something I rarely do.

Recommended Reading: I do recommend Yip's previous novel, Secret of a Thousand Beauties. Although I did have some of the same issues with it that I do with The Witch's Market, I feel like it is a stronger novel with a better storyline.    

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